Feb 9 2013 10:00am
An excerpt of Hit Me by Lawrence Block, the fifth novel to feature Keller, the philatelic assassin (available February 12, 2013).
Keller has gone legit, working in construction and living in New Orleans under a new name with a new family, but the domestic bliss doesn’t last long. One phone call drags him back into the game—killing people for a living. In New York, his target is the abbot of a midtown monastery. Another call puts him on a West Indies cruise, with several interesting fellow passengers—the government witness, the incandescent young woman keeping the witness company, and, sharing Keller’s cabin, his wife, Julia. But the high drama comes in Cheyenne, where a recent widow is looking to sell her husband’s stamp collection.
The young man, who would have looked owlish even without the round eyeglasses, unfolded a piece of paper and laid it on the counter in front of Keller. “The certificate of expertization for Obock J1,” he said. “Signed by Bloch and Mueller.”
He might have been a Red Sox fan invoking Ted Williams, and Keller could understand why. Herbert Bloch and Edwin Mueller were legendary philatelists, and their assertion that this particular stamp was indeed a genuine example of Obock’s first postage due stamp, designated J1 in the Scott catalog, was enough to allay all doubt.
Keller examined the stamp, first with his unaided eye, then through the magnifier he took from his breast pocket. There was a photograph of the stamp on the certificate, and he studied that as well, with and without magnification. Bloch and Mueller had sworn to its legitimacy in 1960, so the certificate was old enough to be collectible in and of itself.
Still, even experts were sometimes careless, and occasionally mistaken. And now and then someone switched in a ringer for an expertized stamp. So Keller reached for another tool, this one in the inside pocket of his jacket. It was a flat metal oblong, designed to enable the user to compute the number of perforations per inch on the top or side of a stamp. Obock J1 was imperforate, which rendered the question moot, but the perforation gauge doubled as a mini ruler, marked out in inches along one edge and millimeters along the other, and Keller used it to check the size of the stamp’s overprint.
That overprint, hand stamped on a postage due stamp initially issued for the French Colonies as a whole, had the name of the place—Obock—in black capitals. On the original stamp, the overprint measured 12 ½ millimeters by 3 ¾ millimeters. On the reprint, a copy of which reposed in Keller’s own collection, each dimension of the overprint was half a millimeter smaller.
And so Keller measured the overprint on this stamp, and found himself in agreement with Mr. Bloch and Mr. Mueller. This was the straight goods, the genuine article. All he had to do to go home with it was outbid any other interested collectors. And he could do that, too, and without straining his budget or dipping into his capital.
But first he’d have to kill somebody.
The Dallas-based firm of Whistler & Welles conducted auctions of collectibles throughout the year. At various times they sold coins, books, autographs, and sports memorabilia, but the partners had started out as stamp dealers, and philatelic holdings remained the largest component of their business. Their annual Spring Equinox Sale, held each year in the Hotel Lombardy on the third weekend in March, was one Keller had wanted to attend for years. Something had always prevented him from attending. He’d marked up copies of their catalogs over the years, sent in unsuccessful mail bids on a few occasions, and one year had a hotel room reserved and a flight booked before something or other came up and forced him to cancel.
He’d lived in New York when Whistler & Welles put him on their mailing list. Nowadays he lived in New Orleans, and the name on their mailing list was one he’d borrowed from a local tombstone. He was Nicholas Edwards now, and that was the name on his passport, and on all the cards in his wallet. He lived in a big old house in the Lower Garden District, and he had a wife and a baby daughter, and he was a partner in a construction firm specializing in purchasing and rehabilitating distressed properties.
A year earlier, he’d looked with longing at the Whistler & Welles catalog. Dallas was a lot closer to New Orleans than to New York, but he and Donny Wallings were putting in twelve-hour days and seven-day weeks, just trying to keep up with everything they had going on.
But that was a year ago, before the collapse of the subprime mortgage market and everything that followed on its heels. Credit dried up, houses stopped selling, and they’d gone from more business than they could handle to no business to speak of.
So he could afford the time. A couple of days in Dallas? Sure, why not? He could even take his time and drive to Dallas and back.
And there were plenty of stamps on offer that he’d be eager to add to his collection, with Obock J1 at the very top of his wish list.
Now, though, he couldn’t afford it.
* * *
The Lombardy, an independent, locally owned older hotel trying to survive in a world of modern chains, was starting to show its age. The carpet in Keller’s room, while not yet threadbare, was due for replacement. A sofa in the lobby was worn on the arms, and the wood paneling in one of the elevators needed touching up. None of this bothered Keller, who found the hotel’s faded glory somehow reassuring. What better venue for men of a certain age to compete for little pieces of paper that had done their duty carrying the mail long before any of them were born?
Whistler & Welles had booked a large conference room on the mezzanine for their three-day sale, which would begin promptly at nine Friday morning. New Orleans and Dallas were a little over five hundred miles apart, and Keller drove most of the way Wednesday, stopping for the night at a Red Roof Inn off a handy exit from the interstate. He checked into his room at the Lombardy a little after noon, and by one o’clock he was signing Nicholas Edwards on the bidder register and walking over to the long table where they were showing the auction lots.
By two thirty he’d had a look at all the lots that interested him, and had made cryptic notes in his auction catalog. Every sales lot was illustrated with a color photograph, so he didn’t absolutely have to see them up close and personal, but sometimes you got something that way that you couldn’t get from a photo in a catalog. Some stamps reached out to you while others put you off, and it probably didn’t make any real sense, but the whole hobby was wacky enough to begin with. I mean, spending a fortune on little pieces of colored paper? Picking them up with tongs, putting them in plastic mounts, and securing them in albums? Why, for heaven’s sake?
Keller had long since come to terms with the essential absurdity of the pastime, and didn’t let it bother him. He was a stamp collector, he derived enormous satisfaction from the pursuit, and that was all he needed to know. If you thought about it, just about everything human beings did was pointless and ridiculous. Golf? Skiing? Sex?
Upstairs in his room, Keller reviewed the notes he’d made. There were stamps he’d initially considered and now decided to pass on, others he might buy if the price was right, and a few for which he’d be bidding competitively. And there was Obock J1. It was rare, it didn’t come up that often, and this particular specimen was a nice one, with four full margins. Imperforate stamps had to be cut apart, and sometimes a careless clerk snipped off a bit of the stamp in the process. That didn’t keep a letter from reaching its designated recipient, but it made the stamp considerably less desirable to a collector.
According to the Scott catalog, Obock J1 was worth $7500. In their catalog, Whistler & Welles had estimated the lot conservatively at $6500. The actual price, Keller knew, would depend on the bidders, those in the room and those participating by mail or phone, or via the Internet, and the hammer price wouldn’t tell the whole story; to that you’d have to add a 15 percent bidder’s premium and whatever sales tax the state of Texas saw fit to pile on. Keller, who wanted the stamp more than ever now that he’d had a look at it, figured he might have to bid $12,000 to get it, and the check he’d write out would be uncomfortably close to $15,000.
Would he go that high?
Well, that’s why they had auctions, and why bidders showed up in person. You sat in your chair, and you’d decided in advance just how high you’d go and when you’d drop out, and then they got to the lot you were waiting for and you discovered how you really felt. Maybe you did exactly what you planned on doing, but maybe not. Maybe you found out your enthusiasm wasn’t as great as you’d thought, and wound up dropping out of the bidding early on. Or maybe you found yourself hanging in far beyond your predetermined limit, spending considerably more than your maximum.
No way to guess how it would be this time. It was Thursday, and tomorrow’s morning and afternoon sessions would both be devoted to U.S. issues, and thus of no interest to Keller. He wouldn’t need to be in the auction room until Saturday morning, and the French Colonial issues, including Obock J1, wouldn’t come up until early Saturday afternoon.
He went downstairs, walked outside. It was cool, but not unpleasantly so. Football weather, you’d call it, if the calendar didn’t insist that it was March. Cool, crisp—a perfect October day.
He walked a couple of blocks to another hotel, where there was a queue of waiting cabs. He went to the first one in line, settled into the backseat, and told the driver to take him to the airport.
He’d been working on his stamps when the phone rang. He was alone in the house, Julia had left to pick up Jenny at day care, and he very nearly let the machine answer it because calls were almost invariably for Julia. But there was always a chance it was Donny, so he went and picked it up half a ring ahead of the machine, and it turned out to be Dot.
Not that she bothered to identify herself. Without preamble she said, “Remember that cell phone you had?” And she broke the connection before he could respond.
He remembered the phone, an untraceable prepaid one, and even remembered where he’d left it, in his sock drawer. The battery had long since run down, and while it was charging Julia and Jenny came home, so it was a good half hour before he was back in his den with the phone.
For years he’d lived in New York, a few blocks from the United Nations, and Dot had lived north of the city in White Plains, in a big old house with a wraparound porch. That house was gone now, burned to the ground, and the same wind that had blown him to New Orleans had picked up Dot and deposited her in Sedona, Arizona. Her name was Wilma Corder now, even as his was Nicholas Edwards, and she had a new life of her own. Back in the day she had arranged the new life of her own. Back in the day she had arranged the contract killings he had performed, but that was then and this was now.
Even so, he closed the door before he made the call.
“I’ll just plunge right in,” she said. “I’m back in business.”
“And the business is—”
“Holding its own. Not booming, but a long way from flatlining, which seems to be what everybody else’s business is doing.”
“What I meant—”
“I know what you meant. You want to know what business I’m in, but do you have to ask? Same old.”
“You’re surprised? You’re not the only one. See, there’s this thing I joined, Athena International.”
“It sounds like an insurance company.”
“It does? It’s what they call a service club, like Rotary or Kiwanis. Except it’s exclusively for women.”
“Can’t women join Rotary?”
“Of course, because it would be sexist to keep them out. But men can’t join Athena.”
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
“Keller, if it bothers you, you can put on a dress and a wig and I’ll drag you along to a meeting. If you’re still awake at the end of it I’ll buy you a pair of high heels.”
“But you enjoy it.”
“The hell I do. I must have been brain-dead when I joined. We do things like pick up trash once a month around Bell Rock, and I approve of that, since I’ve got a view of the damned thing from my bedroom window, and it looks better without the beer bottles and gum wrappers. I’m not crazy about walking around in the hot sun hunting for other people’s garbage, but I go once in a while. And we raise money to give some deserving girl a scholarship to college, and if I’m not out there running a table at the bake sale, or God forbid baking something, at least I’ll write out a check. But I mostly pass on the monthly meetings. I’ve never been a meeting person. Endless talking, and then the damn song.”
“The Athenian song, and no, I’m not about to sing it for you. But that’s how we close the meeting. We all stand in a circle and cross our arms over our chests and clasp hands and sing this Mickey Mouse song.”
“Minnie Mouse,” he suggested.
“I stand corrected. The thing is, most of the members have careers of one sort or another, and we don’t just pick up garbage. We network, which means we take in each other’s laundry.”
“Beth’s a travel agent, Alison’s a real-estate agent, Lindsay does Tupperware parties.”
“So you’ve been buying Tupperware,” he suggested. “And houses.”
“No houses. But when I went to Hawaii for a week I let Beth make the booking,” she said, “and one of our members is a lawyer, and when I need a lawyer she’s the one I go to. And of course I bought the Tupperware. You go to the party, you buy the Tupperware.”
“And drink the Kool-Aid. I’m sorry, go on.”
“Anyway,” she said, “there they all were with their careers, and there I was, with all the money I needed, and it couldn’t keep me from feeling time was passing me by.”
“That’s what time does.”
“I know. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I ought to be doing something. But what? Volunteer at a hospital? Help out at a soup kitchen?”
“Doesn’t sound like you.”
“So I picked up the phone,” she said, “and made a few calls.”
“How’d that go? I mean, officially, aren’t you dead?”
“As a doornail,” she agreed. “Shot in the head and burned up in a fire. You Google Dorothea Harbison and that’s what you’ll find out. But the people who would call me to arrange a booking, they never heard of Dorothea Harbison. A few of them knew me as Dot, but most of them didn’t even have that much. I was a phone number, and a voice on the phone, and a mail drop where they sent payments. And that was as much as anybody needed to know.”
“And how much did you know about them?”
“My customers? Next to nothing. But I did have a couple of phone numbers.”
And one day she drove to Flagstaff and rented a private mailbox at a franchise operation on South Milton Road, a block from the Embassy Suites hotel. On her way home she picked up a prepaid and presumably untraceable phone, and over the next few days she made a couple of calls. “I wondered what happened to you,” the first man said. “I tried your number, but it was disconnected.”
“I got married,” she told him, “and don’t bother congratulating me, because it didn’t work out.”
“That was quick.”
“For you, maybe. You weren’t there. Long and short, I’m here for you when you need me. Let me give you the number.”
She had other numbers, too, of men who’d done what Keller used to do. Not all of those numbers worked anymore, but she was able to reestablish a contact or two, and one fellow said he could really use the work. Then she sat back and said he could really use the work. Then she sat back and waited for something to happen, not entirely sure she wanted her new phone to ring, but it did, and within the week.
“And here’s something interesting, Keller. The call was from someone I hadn’t called myself, someone I hadn’t even worked with before. One of my old clients passed the word, and here was this guy calling me out of the blue, with a piece of work to be done in the great state of Georgia. So I called the guy who’d told me how he needed work, and he couldn’t believe I was getting back to him so quick. And I sat back and got paid.”
Like old times, Keller suggested, and she agreed. “I’m still me,” she said. “I’m a rich lady, and I look better than I used to. I moved to Sedona and the pounds started to drop off right away. The place is crawling with energy vortexes, except I think the plural is vortices.”
“What are they?”
“Beats me, Keller. I think it’s something like an intersection, except the streets are imaginary. Anyway, some of the women I know are fat as pigs, and they’ve got the same vortices I do. I belong to a gym, can you believe it?”
“You told me.”
“And I’ve got a personal trainer. Did I tell you that, too? His name is Scott, and I sometimes get the feeling he’d like to get a little more personal, but I’m probably wrong about that. It’s not as though I turned into whistle bait, and what would he want with a woman old enough to use a term like that? Whistle bait, for God’s sake.”
“I guess people don’t say that anymore.”
“They don’t whistle much, either. Look, this is a mistake, isn’t it? I shouldn’t have called.”
“For God’s sake, you’ve got your life to live. You’ve got a beautiful wife and an amazing daughter and you’re the rehab king of New Orleans real estate. So why don’t you just wish me luck in my new venture and hang up, and I’ll leave you alone.”
Copyright © 2013 by Lawrence Block
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Lawrence Block is a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards and countless international prizes. The author of more than 50 books, he lives in New York City.